“Those called upon to play a decisive part in the history of nations are more often than not unaware of the destinies they embody. These two people who had had this long interview upon a March afternoon of 1314, in the Palace of Westminster, could not know that, as a result of their actions, they would, almost alone, become the artisans of a war between the kingdoms of France and England which would last more than a hundred years.”
Author: Maurice Druon
Rating: 3.5/ 5
Absolute clerical domination in the Middle Ages? Not in France.
There is a reason why France is to this day, the only nation-state in Europe and that is due to the unprecedented obsession of its successive sovereigns with the unity and centralization of the royal domain, which of course is synonymous to the might of the crown. Quoting Druon, the France of Philippe le Bel (or Philip the handsome, or Philippe IV) was great and the French miserable – the papacy has been moved to Avignon under the King’s influence, the renowned order of the Knights Templar has been dissolved and its masters barbequed in the Île de Juifs, the lovers of the King’s daughters-in-law following suit while the unfortunate princesses are imprisoned underground. These last two, set against the backdrop on an impending war on Flanders, mark the most notable events of the last year of Philippe IV’s reign, and as such, the events around which the story revolves.
To be perfectly honest, a medieval setting (a.k.a. before the invention of the toilet and proper hygiene) is quite outside my comfort zone, having been often limited to a seventeenth to early-twentieth century selection, so the result is quite a wonder at the world during the so-called Dark Ages. For the basics, well, what I initially found most irritating is the usage of titles 75% of the time on a pretty large number of characters which was confsuing as I often had to stop and try to recall which one was the Comte d’Artois as opposed to the Comte de Poitiers (who for some reason, I kept mixing up), it didn’t help that there were two Philippes, two Charles, two Edwards, two Jeannes (fortunately there was only one Louis, Blanche and Marguerite). Also, maybe because of the confusion, I did not find the early part of the story particularly engaging. True, the burning of the Templars was horrifying and so was the curse of the Grand Master, but that was already the most exciting event of the novel’s first half – Isabella has a gay husband and she almost-but-not-quite cheats on him with her cousin, Templars indignant, King complaining, daughters-in-law sneaking around (okay, that was a little entertaining), council meeting. Out of character for me who loves everything royal and often historical, but MEH. Then the lovers are caught and the king’s unhappy daughter, Isabella arrives in England to expose her sisters-in-law, for the sake of justice, and finally, finally, the story gets good – and brutal.
Our Michel Foucault readings in Philosophy pretty muched desensitized us to an extent over what happens – the lovers, the frères Aunay are broken on the wheel, beaten-up then burned while the unfaithful wives are shaved and brought in to the execution for public humiliation. Isabella and Artois, the people who brought this about are the prime examples of Machiavellian, and so are the people outside of this affair – the Florentine bankers who successfully manipulate the clergy to save their own hides. And the class that supposedly commands absolute domination? Corrupt and power-hungry, but vulnerable and enslaved to the whims of the man who engineered the Avignon papacy. The clergy out of the king’s control, that is the Templars, were burned at the stake (in order for the state and clergy to profit from their treasure). Honestly, as MEH as the first part was, one has to wander now at the links of power and the complicity of medieval politics, especially considering that Philippe IV’s death (as mandated by the Templar curse) will precipitate a crisis “up to the thirteenth generation”. Thus, as lukewarm as the novel’s being is, there is redemption in its second part as Philippe’s approaching death brings to light three male heirs (only one of which is fairly competent) and a daughter who is the most competent of the lot but is hindred from inheritance by Salic Law, the stage is set for the Hundred Years War which will set the template for Franco-English relations well into the present day.
It’s no life-changing, great read and I’ve already stated my negative comments above, but it is an interesting enough for history and political buffs and those fond of medieval dramas.
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